"We will never forgive. We will never forget. We will never excuse," he said to the cheering crowd at Madison Square Garden.
More than 600 miles to the south, an Episcopal priest was disturbed by the emphasis on vengeance he heard that night.
"Three years after the horrific events of Sept. 11, our nation is still breathing revenge and retribution," wrote the Rev. Brian Suntken in a Charlotte Observer editorial. "When will the true process of healing begin? When will our national leaders, many of whom assert religious affiliation, lead our nation into healing and renewal?"
Three years after 9/11, it is this divide--between forgiveness and retribution, healing and getting even--that shapes our country's foreign policy, our political discussions, and our country's spiritual framework.
Religious scriptures advocate for both forgiveness and retaliation. "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," say Exodus and Leviticus. "Turn the other cheek," says the Christian Gospel of Matthew. "You may kill those who wage war against you, and you may evict those who evict you," proclaims the Qur'an. But "I forgive those who do wrong to me," goes a hadith [saying of the Prophet].
Contemporary religious practice tends to emphasize forgiveness over retribution. "We should not seek revenge on those who have committed crimes against us, or reply to their crimes with other crimes," the Dalai Lama has said. Many other religious giants of the past century--Tolstoy, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr.--taught nonviolent resistance to evil.
Recent scientific research has demonstrated the healing effects of forgiveness. Everett Worthington, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, found that people who won't forgive wrongs committed against them tend to have more stress-related disorders, lower immune-system function, worse rates of cardiovascular disease, and higher rates of divorce. People who forgive, some studies claim, tend to live healthier and happier lives. Myriad self-help books have been written on the subject: "The Art of Forgiving" by Lewis B. Smedes, "Forgiveness Is a Choice" by Robert D. Enright, and "The Forgiving Self" by Robert Karen are just a few.
In this cultural and religious context, revenge was like a too-loud relative whose dinner-table rants made everyone uncomfortable. But after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it became more acceptable to express a desire for revenge. "I want revenge," a woman told The Washington Post soon after 9/11. In The New York Times immediately after the event, columnist William Safire urged America's leaders to hit back hard: "We must pulverize them."
While the rawness of these feelings may have eased in the years since the attacks, the concept of revenge itself is coming under new scrutiny.
A Swiss report released the last week of August made headlines around the world for drawing a connection between revenge and pleasure. A University of Zurich team scanned the brains of male participants who passed money back and forth in a neutral setting. Those who made selfish choices instead of mutually beneficial ones could be punished by the other players. The researchers found that most players chose to exact some sort of revenge, even if it cost them some of their own money.
The desire for revenge was strongest in those players whose brains exhibited the most activity in their pleasure centers. Revenge, it seems, can be fun. And while that's hardly news, the study observed that the anticipation of this pleasure, and not necessarily justice, is in large part what drives us to seek revenge. In other words, we hit back hard because it feels good.
"The need to get even is universal," explained Washington Post reporter Laura Blumenfeld. Her 2002 book, "Revenge: A Story of Hope," tells the story of her confronting the Palestinian man who shot her Jewish father, a rabbi. While her father survived the attack, Blumenfeld was left scarred.
Blumenfeld's journey led her to Israel and then to the Palestinian territories, where she tracked down the man suspected of shooting her father. Instead of reconciliation and forgiveness, she wanted from him an acknowledgment that what he had done was wrong.
"What I found was that when he acknowledged that what he had done was wrong, there was a sense of peace and resolution," she said. "That's a very constructive kind of revenge. It's also a very American kind of revenge, a forward-looking kind of revenge that seeks to build up."
Blumenfeld saw this same "forward-looking revenge" in America's response to the terrorist attacks.
"We had more than 3000 people killed on 9/11," she said. "And we had a celebrity marathon to raise money for firefighters and victims. That's a very American thing to do with all that anger and energy. After 9/11, I felt I was going to see the ugly head of revenge in America. Mostly I didn't. I was surprised and proud."
Nevertheless, as the fight against terror widens to include other countries, calls for revenge are becoming more common throughout the globe. The hostage-taking and eventual slaughter of hundreds of schoolchildren in Russia saddened and enraged that nation. Thousands of Russians took to the streets in protest, many ready to take up arms.
"Let's gather up all of the men in the villages and fight," shouted one Russian man, the Associated Press reported.
Meanwhile Israel and the Palestinians are caught in their own cycle of attacks and retaliation. Last week, 16 Israelis were killed by twin suicide bombings that Hamas said were retaliation for the assassinations of two Hamas leaders in the spring. In response, Israel fired rockets into the West Bank, killing 14 Palestinian militants. Hamas has vowed more killings.
"Revenge is so sweet," said one Hamas activist at a rally in Gaza after the bus bombings.
The Rev. Suntken, the North Carolina Episcopal priest, finds these cycles of violence dispiriting.
"Many of us still live in that 'eye for an eye and tooth for tooth' mentality that goes completely against the grain of the great spiritual teachings of the faith," he said in an interview. "If the master preaches peace, then I've got to look at my life and look at those places where I am at war. Forgiveness is very hard. But forgiveness is the business of heaven."
Forgiveness may be the business of heaven, but it must not be given indiscriminately, says Arizona State University Professor Jeffrie Murphy, author of "Getting Even: Forgiveness and Its Limits."
"I think forgiveness also requires repentance on the part of the wrongdoer." Instead, he said, the 9/11 attackers "thought they were being righteous when they crashed those planes."
But Murphy is also reluctant to take revenge and forgiveness out of the personal realm. "The only person in a position to forgive the wrongdoers are the victims," he said.
One of those victims is Lorie Van Auken, whose husband Ken was killed in the World Trade Center. Along with several other 9/11 widows, Van Auken was instrumental in getting the government to form the 9/11 commission, which recently released its report on the attacks.
Explaining to Beliefnet how her life had changed since the terrorist attacks, she noted, "I've become an activist. I went to Washington to demand an independent commission to look into [the failures of government agencies] from the White House on down," Van Auken said last year. "It was like grabbing onto a high-voltage cable, the anger that you feel." Van Auken was clear that she wanted information and accountability, not revenge. "The difference is your reaction--do you kill innocent women and children, or do you pound on the door of your government?"